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Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 12:17 EDT

New Orleans flooded, hundreds feared dead in hurricane

August 30, 2005

By Rick Wilking

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Army engineers raced to staunch
rising floodwaters submerging historic New Orleans as
helicopters plucked frantic survivors from rooftops and
hundreds were feared dead on Tuesday after Hurricane Katrina
tore across the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Authorities made plans to remove thousands of storm
refugees from the Superdome stadium and other shelters in New
Orleans and forged a bold scheme to airdrop giant sandbags to
plug breaches in the city’s protective levee system as water
from Lake Pontchartrain poured into the city.

Looters struck, adding to the city’s misery. They waded
through flood water to ransack electronics stores, drugstores
and supermarkets. They rolled carts full of merchandise and
carried bundles and boxes of beer from downtown stores.

The economic cost of the hurricane could be the highest in
U.S. history, as much as $26 billion, according to risk
analysts’ estimates.

“It looks like we’ve been nuked,” said Hayes Bolton, 65, as
he guarded the rubble of his pawn shop in Biloxi, Mississippi,
near where the homes of his grandmother, mother and aunt were
destroyed by the storm.

“This is just a tragedy. It makes you want to crawl in a
hole.”

As New Orleans coped with a flood, Mississippi grappled
with the prospect that hundreds of people may have died when a
30-foot (9 meter) storm surge blasted ashore, a city spokesman
said. Cadaver dogs were being brought in to help find the dead.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said there were reports of
up to 80 dead in the Biloxi area, but U.S. Homeland Security
Secretary Michael Chertoff said the state’s unofficial
estimates were “probably way too low.”

Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel told Reuters “It’s going to
be in the hundreds.”

Rescuers struggled through high water and mountains of
debris to reach areas crushed by Katrina when it struck the
Gulf Coast on Monday. The storm inflicted catastrophic damage
as it slammed into Louisiana with 140 mph (224 kph) winds, then
raged into Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

PLUCKED TO SAFETY

Across the region, hundreds of people climbed onto rooftops
to escape the rising water that lapped at the eaves. They used
axes, and in at least one case a shotgun, to blast holes in
roofs so they could escape through the attics.

Police took boats into flooded areas to rescue some of the
stranded and others were lifted off rooftops by helicopter. The
Coast Guard helped rescue 1,200 in New Orleans on Monday night
and thousands more all along the Gulf Coast on Tuesday.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco urged residents to hold a
day of prayer on Wednesday to “calm our spirits” and give
thanks for survival. “The situation is untenable,” she said.
“It’s just heartbreaking.”

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin reported bodies floating in the
floodwaters, which may have measured 20 feet deep in places.

Officials said a 3-foot (0.9-meter) shark had been spotted
cruising the flooded streets.

“What I saw today is equivalent to what I saw flying over
the tsunami in Indonesia. There are places that are no longer
there,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana after flying over
the damaged area.

New Orleans is a bowl-like city mostly below sea level and
protected by levees or embankments. The levees gave way
overnight in at least three places, including a 200-foot (60
meter) breach that allowed the lake waters to pour into the
city center.

The U.S. military planned to use helicopters to drop
3,000-pound (1,360-kg), gravel-filled sandbags into the
breaches, the worst up to 20 feet (6 meter) deep. Authorities
were also considering plugging the gap with shipping containers
filled with sand.

Blanco said a plan was being developed to evacuate the
Superdome, which had no electricity, and other shelters.

Governors in the stricken states called out more than 7,500
National Guard troops to help control looting, remove debris
and deliver aid.

ABC News said the looters in New Orleans numbered in the
thousands and carted away anything that was unguarded while a
few overwhelmed police officers stood idly by.

In another area, a special weapons team showed up with
machine guns prominently displayed in a show of force.

“This ain’t no time for this kind of foolishness but people
trapped, a lot of them hungry, they don’t have no water, need
medicine. I need insulin right now,” a woman told ABC.

Four people were confirmed dead in St. Tammany Parish, east
of New Orleans, a local official said.

Most of the deaths appear to have been caused by the storm
surge, which swept as far as a mile inland in parts of
Mississippi.

“From the destruction I’ve seen, I think there’ll be some
people we never find,” Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway said after a
helicopter tour.

Biloxi Fire Captain Michael Thomas said an entire apartment
complex collapsed and officials believed there are many bodies
in the building. At a nearby cemetery, coffins drifted out of
mausoleums. “Caskets are everywhere,” he said.

Katrina dragged a casino as big as a football field 100
yards (metres) over a seafront street and set it down in a
parking lot.

In Mississippi’s Hancock County, emergency workers went
from house to house and put black paint on those where people
died, CNN said. They planned to return later to pick up the
bodies.

PATH OF DESTRUCTION

Before striking the Gulf Coast, Katrina last week hit
southern Florida and killed seven people.

It knocked out electricity to about 2.3 million customers,
or nearly 5 million people, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama
and Florida, utility companies said. Restoring power could take
weeks, they warned.

The storm swept through oil and gas fields in the Gulf of
Mexico, source of 20 percent to 25 percent of U.S. production
of the commodities. U.S. oil prices on Tuesday jumped $3.65 a
barrel to peak at $70.85 as oil firms assessed damage.

Convoys of Humvees and military trucks streamed south on
Interstate 65 through Alabama with loads of fuel and power
generators. Special Forces boat crews were dispatched to
conduct search and rescue operations in flooded communities.

(Additional reporting by Erwin Seba in Baton Rouge, La.,
Paul Simao in Mobile, Ala., Scott Disavino in New York, Charles
Aldinger in Washington, Jane Sutton in Miami and Andrew Stern
in Chicago.)